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Will the Royal Commission into Mental Health save lives, or simply score political points?

The terms of reference have been finalised and the commissioners announced but will Victoria’s Royal Commission into Mental Health actually deliver on its promise to improve mental health outcomes?

On the announcement of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System just before the state election last year, I was equally sceptical and hopeful. The first of its kind in Australia, the commission couldn’t be more needed, but I felt unease at mental health issues being used for political point-scoring. 

One in five Victorians will experience mental health problems this year, and yet, currently the state government only funds enough mental health services to cater for one per cent of the population, not 20 per cent. In fact, it’s the lowest per capita spend on mental health services of any state in Australia. 

But funding is only one indicator of how well mental health services are functioning to meet demand, and according to the 8,000 Victorians who made online submissions for the initial phase of the commission (eight times more than the number of people who made submissions to Victoria's family violence royal commission) the system is clearly broken. The demand for change is overwhelming. 

By the government’s own admission, despite the number of people who experience mental health issues in the state, only about half receive treatment. Why, in one of the most developed countries in the world, are people not getting the level of access they need? We can, and must, do better, but will the royal commission listen? 

A SYSTEM FOR THE FUTURE

Our current mental health system is fragmented, difficult to navigate and, most alarming of all, dehumanising to people at the very moment in time they need the most human connection.  

In our modern world, there is often outcry about the dehumanising nature of digital technologies, and yet, time and again, those same technologies have brought us closer together. We connect with loved ones on the other side of the world, or doctors’ who are hours away from home, at the click of the button. Human connection is not lost because of technology, it is lost due to bureaucracy.   

We live in the 21st century, and yet our mental health system is severely outdated, without any understanding of how to meet the changing needs of our society. We need to invest in digitizing mental health delivery – actually funding service provision and access in a modern way – rather than simply raising awareness and funding education programs. 

A strong digital infrastructure is the backbone of every part of contemporary society – mental health should be no different. Unless the royal commission looks for solutions grounded in the future, too soon any recommendations it gives will once again leave our mental health system in the past.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Now that the first phase of the commission is over, the terms of reference have been finalised (which can be found in full here). These include how to effectively prevent mental illness and suicide, how to help people navigate the system, how to help families and those with mental illness and how best to support people with mental illness and drug and alcohol issues.

In coming months, the commission is expected to release information on how the inquiry will be conducted, including how the community can contribute to its work. The commission is scheduled to produce a preliminary report by 30 November this year, and a final report in October 2020. 

I encourage everyone to work with the royal commission if they can and push for radical change – anything less will be a heavy indictment that politics comes before people.